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PBS Goes From the TV Screen to the Shopping Mall

When most moms and dads think of children's television on the Public Broadcasting System, comforting images of a prancing Purple Dinosaur or Ernie the Muppet singing "Rubber Ducky" come to mind. But when PBS considers its deeply popular lineup of educational programs, like "Sesame Street," "Barney and Friends," "Arthur" and "Clifford the Big Red Dog," it sees a brand destined to expand beyond the small screen.

This morning PBS plans to announce that it will team up with the Mills Corporation, a fast-growing shopping center developer, to bring PBS to the mall. PBS Kids, which aims make its debut at the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville as early as this fall, will feature all sorts of attractions for the sippy-cup-and-stroller set: reading nooks, television kiosks with PBS programming, as well as guest appearances from PBS stars like Arthur the Aardvark. It will also carry merchandise, like PBS-designed interactive games and, of course, PBS Kids T-shirts.

Judy L. Harris, who was hired a year ago to help PBS develop its brand, said the enterprise was "about reaching the viewers, about keeping us relevant and having more points of impact." Any money the company makes from sales or licensing fees, she said, "goes straight into more quality kids' programming."

Mills, not surprisingly, is not motivated by altruism alone. "It will have a financial benefit in the long term by enabling us to lease at the best economic terms to tenants who want to be near" mall attractions like this, said Mark Rivers, director of strategic development for Mills.

PBS is just the latest nonretailer to put its name above these new "branded destination sites." Earlier this month, Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayolas, opened Crayola Works, a hybrid store and creative arts studio. Last year, General Mills opened Cereal Town at the Mall of America in Minnesota, where children can see how their favorite breakfast is made or have their picture put on a Wheaties box. ESPN X Games opened its first mall-based skate park last year and is set to open three others by the end of 2002.

The concept is a twist on long-evolving efforts by media and product companies to reach consumers in nontraditional ways. More than a decade ago, Disney and Warner Brothers opened stores across the country filled with merchandise like Tweetie Bird underwear. And Nike Inc. built multistored showplaces in New York and Chicago that were as much about advertising as shopping. The 300,000-square-foot Bass Pro Shop Outdoor World, with a four-story waterfall, has long been a top tourist destination in Missouri. Sony has an entire mall in San Francisco.

There are also, of course, themed restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe and ESPN EndZone, as well as amusements parks like Legoland in Southern California and Sesame Place in Pennsylvania.

But today's new arrivals are intentionally much more "interactive" - so much so that most prefer to be called destinations, not stores. PBS Kids, for example, will not be a store but a themed play area. There will be the requisite PBS Kids sweatshirts, but the network will get most revenue from licensing its name to Mills.

ESPN X Games skate parks run an average of 50,000 square feet. While a fair chunk of the space is devoted to selling sports gear and X Games branded apparel, at least half the park is taken up by facilities for the hip teenager - in-line skating, skateboarding and stunt biking, all of which X Games televises.

"Skate parks are the ball fields of the 21st century," said Ron Semaio, vice president for programming at X Games. "This is grass-roots marketing that allows us to promote X Games telecasts in a casual environment. If we don't sell a single sweatshirt, but we convince the next generation of kids to watch the X Games, then we consider it a great success."

Companies that have traditionally not sold direct, like media conglomerates or manufacturers that sell wholesale, have a variety of incentives to move toward some type of retail presence. For one, it gives them an easy way to capitalize on the tens of millions of dollars they have invested in building name recognition. Equally important, it gives them a chance to interact with customers in a much more direct way and use that information for future marketing.

"Primarily we are alive through product," said Mark J. Schwab, president and chief executive of Binney & Smith, "but I thought it could be a richer and deeper experience." Working with Mills, Crayola built a store in Baltimore where customers can buy products like soccer ball decorating kits and then go to a nearby area with tables and chairs and complete the project.

"I see it as a learning lab," Mr. Schwab said of the stores. "We will try new products and different merchandising solutions and share everything we have learned with our customer."

Malls like the concept because it gives them a chance to break away from the relentless parade of chains like Gap, Crate & Barrel and Victoria's Secret that seem to populate every upscale concourse. Mills, which runs 13 malls nationwide, is in a class by itself in identifying brands that could find homes in the mall and working with those companies to bring interactive destinations to their properties - Crayola, skate parks and PBS Kids are all theirs.

"Retail has an awful lot of repetition," Mr. Rivers said. "Consumer brands that have legacy and loyalty give our offering urgency. It also allows us to target a demographic, like young mothers with strollers, and then go out and grab it."

Grabbing audiences the first time is easy. But branded retail is littered with the bodies of hot destination sites that soon lost favor with the public.

"I am not optimistic," said Therese Byrne, editor of Retail Maxim, an industry newsletter. "I know that there are a lot of these concepts that are like the next generation Discovery Zone out there, but after being in these markets from Las Vegas to Southern California, I can tell you that it is a very fickle market. Even good concepts can't figure out how to keep consumers coming back and back and back again."


Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times. June 27, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.